Do you get them? I do...
It was a revelation to me to realize not everyone does. That's why not everyone gets this phenomenon. Only some of us suffer from the overwhelming, overpowering, hypnotic, obsessive, spiraling juggernaut of BIG cravings. Mine don't have much (if anything) to do with actual hunger, though I am more vulnerable to them when I haven't eaten for a few hours. Mine usually come when I'm suffering some kind of emotional "upset" from the heavy end of the spectrum including sadness, loneliness, guilt, worry, anxiety and fear. Sometimes I'm not even aware that I'm feeling those emotions until I'm seized by craving and need to ask myself why. For me, BIG cravings are huge, billowing, tattered, well-worn crimson flags signaling an urgent need for action. Action OTHER than eating.
As I have restarted Phase 1, and been deep in the appetite suppressant experience of ketosis, I've remembered how easy Phase 1 can be! The Food Peace that comes from this biological state is profound. However, even food peace does not derail some of my BIG Cravings. If I'm emotionally upset, I still get the strong, overpowering urge to turn to food (overeating to be specific) for comfort and soothing. I have studied the physiology of this. I understand these urges are just my dopamine system firing -- telling me I need thing(s) that will dump a dose of endorphins into my body. Food works quickly and effectively for this and I used it for so long that it is the first thing my brain signals me to pursue. My amygdala doesn't care about the price tag of this coping method. And in an emotionally stressful state, my amygdala has center-stage, using a megaphone to drown out the perspective I might have if the higher-reasoning of my pre-frontal cortex were available. I do get it. But that rarely makes a difference in that painful moment of swirling thoughts, body-slamming temptation, urgency, agony and desire.
Certainly ketosis makes these less frequent, and less powerful. But sometimes that just means instead of a category 4 hurricane, it's a level 3 or a 2 -- still capable of significant destruction depending on the strength of my fortifications at the moment. If I'm hungry, angry, lonely, tired (HALT) or stressed, my defenses are lower. If I've been resisting temptation for hours, or dealing with anxiety, worry or some kind of lingering psychic stress, my energy reserves drop and make me more vulnerable. Those of us who have BIG cravings may never be totally free of them, so I have decided I need a strategy to cope that doesn't involve giving in and reaching for food.
Lately the thing that has been working has been to notice the craving and try and really inhabit my body and mind as they go through this uncomfortable experience. When I say inhabit my body, I mean finding a place to sit quietly and alone where I can use a meditation technique called "body scanning" to locate where I feel the craving in my body. A craving is a feeling - somatic. Mine stem mostly from my solar plexus, abdomen, and shoot tendrils up into my jaw, forehead and chest. It feels like a rough, thick rope with a rusty, painful hook embedded in my sternum, dragging me forward as I bleed and struggle. When I can conjure images and *observe* the craving rather than just suffering it, it brings me a tiny bit of distance and lets me access my higher perspective just a bit more.
Next, I acknowledge the craving and stop struggling against it. That doesn't mean I give in to it, but instead, I relax the parts of my body that are tensing in pain and resistance. Stephanie Hardwick, MA, LMHC told me that it's nearly impossible to hold and feel a heavy (negative) emotion when you are relaxed. So I consciously let go of the tightening in my stomach muscles, I relax my shoulders. I breathe and imagine that my incoming breath is infusing my tense chest and shoulders with a cooling, soothing, light-blue glow, and taking dull, red-brown pulsing painful light out of my body as it leaves.
Finally, I acknowledge that the BIG craving is a message. It's telling me I need something. I ask my body and mind to tell me what that need might really be - since I know food is only a temporary chemical feel-good fix. What is my stressed, anxious little self actually needing in that moment? Is it sleep? Is it reassurance, comfort, contact with someone who knows and cares about me? Is it some kind of indulgence like a bubble bath or a massage? Maybe snuggling with a big down comforter and my dog when I *should* be doing the dishes or chopping veggies? Stephanie also mentioned that we never succeed in caring for ourselves by just denying ourselves the "bad" things we WANT. The want still needs to be addressed, just with something healthier. She recommends the book, "50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food," by Dr. Susan Albers. This book can be a starting point to create your own list of go-to strategies for these precarious moments. But note, your strategies need to really soothe you - not just divert you from your craving. Otherwise it will be back shortly.
Lately, the things I've actually needed that were masquerading as BIG cravings were:
- A nap. A really long, take all my clothes off, don't set an alarm, it's okay if it turns into going to bed 5 hours early kind of nap. Sleep deprivation is a big danger zone for me.
- Help with my anxiety over a loved one's struggles.
- To say "No" in a situation where I was having soft boundaries. It's very difficult for me to let others suffer the consequences of their own decisions if I feel I have the power, resources or ideas to help them fix things.
- To clean up my cluttered home. I'm very environmentally sensitive and a messy environment can feel jarring to me - like fingernails on a chalkboard. Sometimes I try and "treat" myself by telling myself I can let some cleaning chores slide for a bit, but this only works if I eventually do get around to them, and if they aren't directly impactful on the area I sit and work and live each evening.
- To lean on someone. To let them support me with encouragement and love. To say out loud my fears and let someone else hear the horror-movie I sometimes play in my head about the "future." To ground myself in the present moment where none of my painful past memories are actually happening anymore, and none of the scary future worries I have actually exist. The beautiful, peaceful, perfect present moment is always FAR more kind than my mind's fabricated imaginings and resting in the moment always soothes me more than any kind of food ever could.
I hope you find this helpful. Please share thoughts, ideas, resources so we can all help one another find our way in this amazing journey back to our healthy bodies!
"When you discover that all happiness is inside of you, the wanting and needing are over and LIFE gets VERY exciting." -- Byron Katie